In the Five Element framework, Autumn is associated with Metal. In this season of the harvest, we imagine the scythe that cuts the grain from the stalk: Metal separates what is necessary from what is not. Here we explore some of the primary themes of the Metal season, and how they guide us to reflection and discernment during this time.
Letting go of what is no longer necessary
We call the season Fall because it is the time when the leaf, the part of the tree which is no longer needed, falls back to the Earth. Indeed the direction associated with Autumn is downward movement. After the high activity of Summer and the re-centering of Late Summer, Autumn is when we get our feet back underneath us. Energy levels decrease with the daylight. The body contracts in the cold. We move back indoors. The entire season carries a quality of shrinking and simplifying.
The harvest season asks us to be discerning and precise: we assess what has grown during the Summer and collect everything that we need to keep, allowing the rest to die off. During this season, we plan ahead for the long winter and ask ourselves, “What do I need to survive?” It is a powerful prompt for reflection in both the material and spiritual senses.
Renowned mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn describes letting go as “letting things be as they are.” Letting go is the simple recognition that things are always changing, and that we needn’t try to hold on to them. As far as we can tell (with our limited science of consciousness), the trees don’t seem to hold on to their leaves with any sentimentality. Loss and death are integral parts of life, and what we lose today becomes the compost and substance for new life in the Spring.
Perhaps there is something which is already ending in your life. Whether minor or significant, that situation invites you to ask: Am I clinging on unnecessarily, exhausting myself with the effort of holding? Or might this be the time to loosen my grasp, allowing this thing to change and go?
Returning to essentials
Of course we cannot simply let go of everything indiscriminately. Minimalism and monastic life are alluring to some, but even those lifestyles require their adherents to acquire and retain essential resources. As Autumn encourages us to let go of excess, it naturally follows: What is essential? What is valuable to me?
This can be a loaded question for us at times, because we are always being told what we should value! (Wealth, status, or achievement, for instance.) Values are inherently a function of the culture we live in. Conforming to cultural norms keeps us safe within our social groups, but it can also put us on autopilot. Do I really care about the newest iPhone, or are other people (and advertisers) just telling me I should?
This is how we learn one of the primary gifts of the Metal element: discernment. Nature reminds us this season just how little is actually needed to sustain life. Hibernating animals and dormant trees teach us to embrace the decreasing energy and rest. Migratory birds remind us that our environments have a profound impact on our life cycles. Plants that have been steadily growing all Spring and Summer might just now be blooming, reminding us that there is a proper time and place for everything.
Autumn has a precision to it which is not so easily seen in the explosion of Spring and the heavy blanket of Winter. With this exacting eye, we mindfully assess the opportunities in front of us and ask, What is essential? In this season of abrupt change and adjustment, we do well to be discerning and reserved, allowing our bodies the breathing room to change at the easy pace of the trees.
What tea practice teaches us about the cycles of life
At Living Tea, we are guided by the Five Element theory, which is incredibly deep and complex, and the study of which could occupy many lifetimes. But it’s not necessary to go the scholarly route: everything in the practice of Tea aligns us with Nature, connecting us to something much bigger than ourselves, which is what shakes us free from the autopilot and clinging described above. The constant yet effortless changing of Nature invites us to greater depths of clear, mindful awareness – the way our senses awaken with the smell of cut grass in Spring, or bonfires in Autumn.
We explore the elements not because there are “right” or “wrong” ways to live in each season, but because living in alignment opens our minds. For instance, in the transition from Winter to Spring, we favor lighter flavors like yencha and floral oolongs, whose subtleties are most apparent when brewed gongfu. Gongfu brewing teaches us precision and economy of movement, just as our energy becomes more focused and our cravings naturally shift from heavy Winter foods to lighter Spring fare. In this way, tea is an entry point to a rich and complex web of practices that bring us back home to Nature and to ourselves, season after season, year after year.
How might it feel if every drink were like the first invigorating sip of morning tea? If every sound were as welcoming and wise as the whisper of the boiling kettle? Gazing upon Leaves in a Bowl in Autumn, I am reminded of what Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Am I not part leaves and vegetable mould myself?”
In this season of endings, we are safe to grieve, to let go, to be discerning, to be precise. That is the invitation of Autumn. We explore these inherent parts of ourselves, even if they feel unfamiliar, because we are not separate from any of these processes which are in full force around us. Let’s enjoy it. Before we know it, Winter will be here to draw us deeper.
Written by Rachel E. Maley, leader of Living Tea and creator of Still Life Meditation.